Discussion Topic

The nature of Meursault's threat to society and the justification of his death penalty in The Stranger

Summary:

Meursault's threat to society in The Stranger lies in his emotional detachment and rejection of social norms. His indifferent attitude towards life, morality, and human relationships challenges societal values. The justification for his death penalty is not solely based on his crime but on his perceived moral indifference and failure to conform to societal expectations.

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In The Stranger, is Meursault a threat to society?

Since Meursault shows all of the characteristics of a textbook sociopath, it can indeed be said that he is a threat to society. He acts without remorse or guilt, and sometimes even without reason. In a society that operates and creates its laws largely based upon the assumption that everyone will operate on a certain moral standard, even if that standard is negative, this is certainly a dangerous thing. Meursault is a force of apathy and is defined by his unwillingness to take part in the emotional or spiritual side of the human experience. His emotions are completely blunted, and even when this evidence is being used against him, he does not attempt to disguise himself.

This is where Meursault differs from most sociopaths and narcissists. He never attempts to put on a mask for his gains or ambitions. In fact, he seems to have none. He is simply frustrated by the human condition, which he perceives to be petty and pedantic. In this way, Meursault is as much a product of society as he is a danger to it.

At the end of the novel, his outburst toward the priest reveals his ultimate dissatisfaction with the fretful nature of existence. Meursault's ultimate threat to society is that he is living evidence of the darkest parts of it. Much of the order of society revolves around the idea of an intrinsic purpose, and Meursault is a testament to the cosmic indifference of life.

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In The Stranger, is Meursault a threat to society?

Meursault is indeed a threat to society—not just to French society, but to any society. The main danger that he poses is that he doesn't believe in anything. As such, there's little or nothing that society can do to control him. No positive inducement to conform to society's norms and expectations will ever work on someone so thoroughly nihilistic in his moral outlook. For someone like Meursault, killing someone is like crossing the road or putting on a pair of pants. So long as such people are at liberty, there's simply no telling what they might do.

In fact, Meursault's amorality is considerably more dangerous to society than the immorality of the violent pimp Raymond Sintes. Sintes's actions, though utterly despicable, can at least be rationally explained, and as such, dealt with. But there's no possible explanation for Meursault's killing of the Arab, not even self-defense. Attempts at providing some sort of psychological explanation for his actions simply raise more questions than answers. Meursault's total indifference to the death of his mother strengthens not so much the legal case, as the moral case against him. And there can be little doubt that the language used by the prosecutor indicates that Meursault's amorality is also on trial.

In any case, Meursault knows that he can't use mental disorder as a mitigating factor in his defense. He knew exactly what he was doing. In killing the Arab, he made a clear existential choice. In what he believes to be a godless, meaningless universe, he took upon himself the decision to act, to take his own existence in his hands and live authentically. That being the case, he represents a clear and present threat to any society, as societies must be based on rules, standards and moral values if they're to survive. But if we have people like Meursault going around making up their own rules, then the result is likely to be widespread chaos and disorder.

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In The Stranger, is Meursault a threat to society?

As Camus' Absurd hero, Meursault effectively rebels from society's expectations. He does so, not out of pointless defiance, but out of a principle of genuine behavior. Meursault is a threat to society because has proved himself to be capable of murder; plain and simple. The more complicated implication is that, as Meursault is tried, convicted, and sentenced, it becomes more and more clear that the court (and those of his social world) are convicting him for his lack of religious belief and lack of adherence to their (society's) code of behavior. In other words, he is a threat because he killed a man. But he is tried as much for his philosophical perspective as he is for his actual crime. This is the absurd irony of his situation. The court and the chaplain are more horrified by his beliefs (or lack thereof) than they are by the actual crime he committed. 

For example, the Prosecutor, in attempts to establish Meursault as having no remorse, says that Meursault is "morally guilty of his mother's death" because he did not properly mourn. The lawyer compares Meursault's crime to the crime of the upcoming trial: a son arrested for killing his father. The Prosecutor is correct in determining that Meursault is a threat to society because Meursault offers no logical explanation for why he killed the man. But again, the irony is that the Prosecutor is equally, or more, appalled at Meursault's general behavior. The Prosecutor, continuing to focus on Meursault's behavior, goes so far as to say that Meursault "is also guilty of the murder to be tried tomorrow in this court." Meursault is a threat because he killed, but the Prosecutor is condemning him for being a social outcast rather than for being a social threat. 

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In The Stranger, is Meursault a threat to society? Does he deserve the death penalty?

We could look at Meursault’s possible danger to society and punishment by the death penalty in Albert Camus’s The Stranger in different ways. Let’s do some brainstorming so that you can form a position to argue in this assignment.

You might focus first on Meursault’s apathy. In some ways, this might indicate that he is not a threat to society, for he simply does not care enough about most things to take any action. But on the other hand, he does shoot the Arab man, indicating that his apathy is not complete. Some things can penetrate his thick skin. In fact, we might even wonder if Meursault’s apathy makes him more dangerous because he cares nothing about the lives of other people and not all that much about his own life. This could make him act more impulsively.

You may also want to discuss the threat or not that the Arab man poses to Meursault and Raymond. Raymond has already been attacked. If Meursault is acting in self-defense, then perhaps he is not much of a threat, and perhaps he does not deserve the death penalty. If, however, you think that there is not much risk involved for Meursault, then he shoots unnecessarily. This could indicate an instability that may be viewed as a danger.

Finally, your must decide whether or not Meursault deserves the death penalty. Your argument here can rest in part on your own ideas about the death penalty. Perhaps you see a change starting in Meursault that will never be completed because he will be executed. Or maybe you would argue the other direction and discuss the judge’s reasons for sentencing as he does.

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